Holidays around the world

Islanders share memories of Christmas past.

Amelia Smith’s happy Irish Christmas

Christmas in Ireland is a lot like Christmas here, but scratch the surface and you’ll find real differences — more rum-soaked cakes, more candy bars, and more time off from work. Although I lived in Ireland for a year and a half, we spent our first Christmas there with my husband’s family a few years later. Flights from Boston to Ireland are usually packed to the rafters with Irish Americans going home for the holidays, even if the holiday has changed some since their childhoods there.

“Ireland is already a laid-back place, and Christmas is supposed to be about relaxing,” says my husband, Michael Craughwell. He looks a bit askance at my family’s frantic holiday, which includes almost no television watching. His childhood Christmases were for watching movies and eating selection boxes. Selection boxes — festively packaged assortments of full-size candy bars — are ubiquitous, the go-to gift for children. Allegedly, some Irish children eat only the contents of selection boxes for their entire two-week holiday while binge-watching cartoons. My own children think that this is a fine idea.

I have never really warmed up to selection boxes, but I quickly became addicted to the little mince pies that are nearly as ubiquitous. You can’t get them here, so I added mince pies to my December baking lineup. Traditional Irish Christmas baking also includes flaming puddings and fruitcakes. Therese Giegler recalls that her grandmother started making the Christmas fruitcakes in October, and doused them liberally with rum week after week, finally wrapping them in marzipan and hard white icing.

Bill O’Callaghan, who grew up in Cork city, says that everyone would have a Christmas pint down at the pub before staggering off to midnight Mass. People were out on the streets on Christmas Eve, unlike here where everything shuts down by 4 pm. “It was a really magical time. The city was so full of lights. All the shops were open late Christmas Eve,” he says. In the morning the children would wake up to find their presents at the foot of the bed, unwrapped. It would have been a lot of work to wrap presents for so many kids, but even in smaller Irish families many don’t wrap presents. One family in the O’Callaghans’ neighborhood always got soccer balls, one for each boy, which were taken out one at a time and played with until they fell apart, to be replaced by the next one. In between soccer games, they enjoyed watching the two movies a day that were shown on their one-channel television for the holiday.

For Lara O’Brien, who hails from Howth, Christmas was a time for music and horses. She started the day by unwrapping new riding boots and hurrying off to a 7 am Mass. “We stood in a pew bookended by our parents,” she recalls. “We girls all wore our new winter hat and matching scarf sets. We turned to see the McDonnells, a family of nine kids and their parents, stood in the pew behind us. Every single kid had the same matching set.” Later, she and her family, who kept 25 horses, led a ride to the beach, where the horses went for a traditional Christmas swim. “The transition from walk to swim is one of the most beautiful, and the horses held their heads high and swam like Michael Phelps,” she says. “With the swim over, we trotted home back through the village and right into the yard, where we rugged the horses and fed them for the day.”

As everywhere, one family’s traditions are different from another, but the common themes of food, gifts, and family run through it all. The big Christmas dinner would include a ham or a turkey, or both, and potatoes cooked two or three different ways (Irish festive meals always include multiple potato dishes). Everyone relaxes a bit more. Irish schools and many workplaces close down for the full two-week holiday, so there’s no hurry to go anywhere until it’s time for the visitors to fly back to America.


Juliana Germani’s Italian Christmas

For 30 years I didn’t celebrate Christmas. I was raised Jewish, and it was never something I ever thought I would develop a taste for. And then I fell for with a man who didn’t know much about my religion, and exposed me to the world of Christmas. However, even before I met my husband, Christmas was already making its way into my heart.
It is not that Brazilians don’t celebrate Christmas, because they certainly do. I wrote about it in an article ( all about Christmas and New Year’s traditions. But there is something to be said about a white Christmas, the decorations, the trees full of light and ornaments, the Christmas songs that are classics all over the world that are sung in English, the gingerbread houses, the cookies, skating in Central Park, the Hallmark Christmas movies. That part of Christmas is what has always been appealing to me.
As for the religious aspects, I am still very much Jewish, but when you have an interfaith marriage, you must open your mind and be willing to expand your horizons. By doing that, I had one of my best Christmas experiences last year, when we went to Italy for Christmas.

One day I was driving with my husband, and mentioned a desire to visit the Vatican for Christmas Mass, since we were going to be in Rome anyway. Regardless of our different religions, I believe the Vatican Christmas Mass is a special occasion that spreads unity and peace. We researched how to get tickets, sent a fax with our request, and received a letter from the Vatican confirming that they received our request. Before the Mass, which is not at midnight but at 9:15 pm, we went to get our official tickets. I will never forget the experience. Because of the years I lived in Italy as a teenager, I still speak fluent Italian, and my husband decided that I would be the one getting the tickets. I got to meet some of the Swiss guards who protect the Vatican and the pope, and that was equally exciting. I really admire Pope Francis, and it was a marvelous experience to see him and be in Saint Peter’s Basilica while he is the pope. While in line, I met a bunch of Brazilians who became our friends, and among them were some Brazilian priests who were part of the Christmas Mass.

One of the things that amazed me the most was the faith I witnessed. One of the Brazilian ladies we met while in line to get into the basilica was saving a ticket for a Brazilian priest who hadn’t arrived yet, and right when we were about to enter, we saw a woman who didn’t have a ticket but had waited in line for four hours, and my new friend was able to give her the extra ticket. Once we were inside, we saw that the Brazilian priest we had waited for had arrived earlier, with a ticket to participate in the Christmas Mass as a member of the clergy. Talk about joining a congregation of roughly 15,000 people to ring in the joyful holiday!

Kristofer Rabasca’s Naughty but Nice Christmas in Iceland

Kristofer is the art director for The MV Times. He grew up in Iceland, and moved to the U.S. at age 14. While Kris was busy designing this holiday supplement, The Times picked his brain for his Icelandic holiday traditions.

I knew there was only one Saint Nick in the U.S. In Iceland, there are 13. I didn’t know what to believe growing up.

The 13 Icelandic Santas are portrayed as being mischievous, criminal pranksters who steal from, and sometimes harass children. They generally dress in late medieval style Icelandic clothing, but are sometimes shown wearing the costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus. They make their appearance 13 days before Christmas, which is celebrated on Dec. 24 in Iceland. Each of their names describe their characteristics. There’s Hurðaskellir, Door-Slammer, who likes to slam doors. There’s Ketkrókur, Meat-Hook, who uses a hook to steal meat. The mother of them all is Gryla. She’s big and scary with an appetite for the flesh of mischievous children. She’s sometimes depicted putting them in a large pot to make stew. It’s crazy.

The first Santa comes down from the mountains and into town on Dec. 12, 13 days before Christmas Eve. News media goes as far as broadcasting him walking down from the mountains into town. It’s a huge tradition. They really work it.

Starting the 12th, kids put a shoe in their window every night leading up to Christmas Eve. Each night, one Santa comes to the window and leaves a small toy or treat if you were good. If you were bad, they’d leave a potato or rocks. I teased my brother once by eating his treat and putting a potato in his shoe. He was much younger than me, and usually a rambunctious kid. That next morning he was very quiet when he came downstairs. If you got enough potatoes and rocks, you’d get eaten. One of the Santas would put you in a bag and take you to the countryside.

We lived with our grandparents, and they were very old-fashioned. One relative would dress up every Christmas Eve and knock on the door, pretending to be Santa. We’d all open our gifts on Christmas Eve. Another huge tradition is Christmas dances around a big Christmas tree. Kids would dress up in a suit and tie and sing.

Ptarmigan is the popular holiday dish. It’s a white, pheasant-like bird. It’s awesome. No one buys ptarmigan; it’s almost always hunted. You have to be especially careful when you’re chewing it, because every once in a while, you’ll come across a pebble from the shotgun. Hangikjöt — a smoked lamb — is another popular holiday dish served on Christmas. Before we eat, there’s a tradition of everyone having a bowl rice pudding. In one of the bowls, there’s a hidden white almond. Whoever got the white almond got to open the first present, and got an extra present. My sister would rotate each bowl to find where the white almond was, and give it to herself. We didn’t do much on Christmas Day. It was a regular day.

Another day I really looked forward to was the 6th of January. That’s the last day of Christmas, and everyone would burn their Christmas tree in a giant bonfire. There’d also be fireworks. We’d have a similar celebration on New Year’s Eve, but the 6th was when everyone took down decorations and burned their trees.

I haven’t been home for the holidays in a couple of years. We usually go in the summertime. This year, my brother and sister and their families will all come here. It’ll be totally chaotic.